A Culture of Mutual Respect

sharedA positive school environment has a culture of mutual respect. A school’s culture can be measured by the level of mutual respect that exists in a building; the way adults treat each other, the way adults treat their students, the way adults teach their students to treat each other and of course the way students treat others as well.  Teachers must model with each other what they expect from their students, even something as simple as not talking in the hallway is modeling that culture. (There is nothing more frustrating than in the middle of teaching a class you hear a commotion outside your door only to realize it is a few teachers carrying on.) And teacher leaders including principals and administrators must do the same. They must lead by example.

If the culture of a school is not one where mutual trust and compassion exists, then it can easily become toxic. A toxic work environment becomes psychologically unsafe. One must satisfy lower level basic needs (ie. safety) before progressing on to meet higher level growth needs. In psychologically safe working environments, team members feel accepted and respected. Team members do not feel scrutinized, but rather trusted and allowed to work as professionals. Jim Knight, CEO SAS, sums it up best when he states “Treat employees like they will make a difference and they will.” Members should understand their role and be allowed to exercise professional judgement. The principal can increase the teams psychological safety by using participatory and inclusive management. The principal can also increase psychological safety by building the capacity of teachers by allowing teachers to grow in areas of interest and skill. Schools are hard places to work, but if the principal can lead staff by creating a safe and nurturing culture for teachers, that culture can be transferred to the students they teach.

Montie Koehn is a principal at Kennedy Elementary School in Norman, Oklahoma. Koehn has been an educator for more than 20 years and methodology coach shares these fundamental tenants:

A pivotal aspect of fostering mutual respect among teachers, students and staff is adhering to the following eight expectations, which fundamentally change the way schools function:

  1. We will value one another as unique and special individuals. We’re all unique, and our differences should be celebrated and embraced. This is an especially important idea to instill in young students, as their self-esteem and self-perception are in formative stages.
  2. We will not laugh at or make fun of a person’s mistakes nor use sarcasm or put-downs. In addition to feeling physically safe at school, students have a right to share their idea and opinions without fear of negativity. Emotional security is important to personal growth.
  3. We will use good manners, saying “please,” “thank you” and “excuse me,” and we will allow others to go first. This might seem like an insignificant emphasis on politeness, but good manners are foundational to selflessness and empathy. Leading by example with polite behavior and respect for others will help instill those qualities among students.
  4. We will cheer each other to success. This emphasis on community and an “all boats shall rise” mentality helps students support their peers and acknowledge the accomplishments of others. We all do better when we all do better.
  5. We will help one another whenever possible. Encouraging students to look out for their peers fills communities with conscientious, helpful and generous citizens. Teamwork is a life skill that serves students well far beyond the classroom.
  6. We will recognize every effort and applaud it. Everyone experiences failure — times when our best effort didn’t produce the desired outcome. While failure is disappointing, the effort of trying to accomplish the goal is always worth recognizing.
  7. We will encourage each other to do our best. To mitigate complacency and create a climate where excellence is rewarded, help students set high standards for themselves and others. Educators can model this behavior by maintaining high personal standards and supporting other teachers in their work.
  8. We will practice virtuous livingRecognize that how students treat each other as people is foundational to a healthy life at school, at home and in the community. By emphasizing empathy, good character and other important life principles, educators create well-rounded and thoughtful students.

We say it over and over, but with the daily inundation of reform, change, and overwhelming expectations, we get beat down with negativity. We sometimes become hurtful and in an attempt to say something privately, it often gets overheard or repeated.

True professionals learn how to step above and often away from pettiness and negativity that is directed towards others. It is important to stay out of the gossip and game playing and standing up for a functional and respectful work environment. Always be transparent and direct in your own expectations and truths. Watch for people who might instigate feuds or spread gossip. Observing without interfering will give you the opportunity to see how things play out in your school. You will also notice who the problem employees might be. Do not get drawn in and always keep your tone and topics professional. Keeping Montie’s tenants as the core of what you value at school and you will help create a great place to be a part of.

I read this in a May 7, 2012 Facebook post under “A Place for Mom” and it made me think of thoughtful leadership:

“Imagine there is a bank account that credits your account each morning with $86,400. It carries over no balance from day to day. Every evening the bank deletes whatever balance was left at the remainder of each day. What would you do? Draw out every cent, of course? Each of us has such a bank. Its name is time. Every morning it credits you with 86,400 seconds. Every night it writes off whatever is left that you have failed to invest to a good purpose. It carries over no balance. It allows no overdraft. Each day it opens a new account for you. Each night it burns the remains of the day. If you fail to use the day’s deposits the loss is yours. there is no drawing against tomorrow. You must live in the present on today’s deposits. Invest it so as to get the most from your health, happiness, and success. The clock is running. Make the most of today!”

Take responsibility for your work and your words. Think of the above $80,000 message when you think of your colleagues and your students. Focus on the good work that you do rather than what others may not be doing. Why settle for average when you can be excellent! Your continued effort and sincerity will pay off in the long run. It can be hard not to get distracted. Work in chunks, after all research on the brain tells us we are much more productive this way. Segmenting your work into small manageable pieces is key. The idea is you do not want to spend an entire day working on one task non-stop. Breaking it up allows your brain to ‘breathe’ and it will reward you later with effectiveness.

Trust your teacher leaders. When teachers feel empowered by their administrator to help lead the school, great things will begin to happen. Leadership should be shared. Leverage the strengths of your staff. But be careful not to make them “meet for the sake of meeting”. You will want to value their time as they focus on what works. Consider your veteran staff as experts and artisians of their craft. Learn what their strengths are and help them to find ways to share and build that strength in others.

Surround yourself with positive and productive people. Truly enjoy and be passionate about teaching and what your working on. Engage in productive discourse that is meaningful and will transfer to your students. Your hard work and spirit will directly transfer to them and then everyone will find success! This will promote a culture of mutual respect in your school.